Last week, the Burbank Fire Department announced that Engine 12, located at Station 12 at 644 Hollywood Way, would be ‘browned-out,’ which means that it would not be staffed by firefighters to “redistribute the personnel to improve staffing resources across the department. This temporary modification will allow BFD to better serve the community by bringing respite to firefighters and their families, and it will routinely be evaluated to ensure BFD is providing the highest level of service to the community.”
Presently, the Station has Engine 12, Truck 12, and HazMat 12. Truck 12 will remain in service, while the members of Truck 12 will switch to HazMat 12 whenever they are needed anywhere in the Mutual Aid system. At that time, Truck 12 will also be out of service for manpower.
A major difference between a Fire Engine and a Fire Truck can be explained that while both carry firefighters, the engine carries a full tank of water, and the truck carries the tools, such as ladders, saws, etc. Both can be dispatched on first aid calls, but in a fire, a truck would have to wait for an engine before it could apply water to the fire.
While all cities have been hit hard by dropping numbers in first responders, this is the first time that the Burbank Fire Department has been unable to staff all of its rigs due to a shortage of firefighters. In 2011, to respond to a 5% budget cut, the department ‘browned out’ Engine 14 (located at 2305 W Burbank Blvd.) for a time. There was also the same proposal in 2003 after Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor, and there was a potential $4 million loss to the City of vehicle-license fees.
Reasons for browning-out Engine 14 (which is the only manned apparatus at the station) then was because it was a more centrally located station in the city, and other resources would be able to cover the area. Station 12 is located in the southwest part of the city and is responsible for responses in the media district and the eastbound 134 freeway. The two closest engines would now be Engine 14 and Engine 15, located at Beachwood and Verdugo, which is also the nearest paramedic station.
Things are much different now, with effects from the pandemic still an issue and what the union feels is a lack of competitive pay and benefits as the main cause.
According to Burbank Fire Department Battalion Chief David Burke, the minimum staffing level for the department is 36, which he says requires 57 authorized firefighter positions. The department currently has staffed and in service six engines (including Engine 12), two trucks, three paramedic rescue ambulances, and a Batallion Chief.
Burke says manpower shortages right now also involve different aspects. “We currently have 50 firefighters. In addition to these permanent vacancies, we also have multiple temporary vacancies due to long-term training (i.e., Paramedic training), injury leave, and Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave.”
Eric Rowley, President of the Burbank Firefighters Local 778, has seen this situation coming for a while, “We have been warning city leaders and anybody in city government who would listen. The staffing crisis that we have been facing here in the Burbank Fire Department and the number of experienced firefighters and paramedics that we have lost to other neighboring fire departments is highly unusual. This has been years in the making, and now we have gotten to this point where we have to brown out an engine, which should never have happened.”
Both have acknowledged that in the past five years, at least 18 firefighters have transferred to different departments, and at least five have retired. The reason for the 18 transfers is especially worrisome to Rowley, “To be honest, the main reason is that we are no longer competitive with other fire departments throughout LA and Orange County with wages and benefits. The market has changed. The demands on the job have only grown, and we are being forced to do so much more with the same or fewer resources.
We are running on more emergency calls but doing so with the same number of firefighters and paramedics that we had 20 to 30 years ago. Our families are suffering, with BFD firefighters working an average of at least 72 hours per week over the past several years. Our members are already away from their families for abnormally long stretches of time, and they are physically worn out. When you add uncompetitive wages and benefits to the equation, you have a situation like the one we are in today with unprecedented numbers of BFD firefighters and paramedics leaving to other departments.” said Rowley.
He also went on the say, “I’m concerned that we will continue to lose highly trained, dedicated, and experienced Burbank Firefighters to other departments. These are people who I have worked side by side with for years, in some cases for well over a decade.”
Current Burbank Mayor Jess Talamantes, who is also a retired Burbank Fire Department Captain, says the City has been trying to solve the problem of the shortage of firefighters for the past two years.
“The City has proactively addressed staffing challenges for the last two years. The City’s Recruitment staff and Fire Department have collaborated on multiple Firefighter recruitments, including recruiting for lateral transfers from other agencies. In 2021, the City recruited both Firefighter Recruits and lateral transfers and graduated 18 recruits through the department’s academy. Currently, the City is in the middle of recruitment for Firefighter Recruits and will continue to pursue lateral recruitment and is moving 53 candidates into the background process. Finally, staff have worked to make the recruitment, background, and hiring process faster and more efficient for the candidates.”
Burke agrees with improved recruiting, “The Burbank Fire Department has evolved and streamlined its hiring process to make it as efficient and as quick as possible. Currently, the hiring process includes a written exam, physical ability test, oral interviews, and backgrounds. These elements require time in order to hire the most qualified candidates. The collective process, from recruitment to hiring, averages about six months which is well within industry standards.”
While Talamantes did not directly reference firefighter’s pay, he said that City has always shown tremendous support for the Burbank Fire Department.
Recruitment will not only be key, but building up the department should also be under consideration in the future. Presently, Burbank is in a housing shortage, with many developers coming into the City with projects under SB 35, that will circumvent many city zoning laws, bringing additional housing to Burbank.
Presently, a large housing complex is under construction on Front Street, with plans now in place for additional housing with three SB 25 housing projects planned for Empire Ave, including a seven-story apartment building, a 92-unit project on the Pickwick property, a large-scale housing unit that is being discussed for the former Fry’s property and a project on the 3200 block of Olive
This, along with a large-scale office complex by Warner Bros. on the former NBC property, a mixed-use development at Riverside and Pass Ave, replacing the Fed Ex store, and a yet-to-be-announced project for the old Ikea site. Down the line, there are plans to completely reconfigure the Warner Bros. Ranch to include 16 new sound stages for the increasing demand.
Burbank’s Economic Development says that besides the 105,000 residents that live here, there are 142,000 working at Burbank jobs daily. Clearly, not only the fire department but also the police department is going to need to expand operations in the future to deal with this growth.
Taking Engine 12 out of service for any length of time will put more stress on the department, with Station 12 responding to 1,474 incidents in the fiscal year 2021-2022. Numerous times paramedics have had to respond to Burbank when all three paramedic units are tied up on calls, sometimes coming as far as the City of Pasadena for calls in Burbank as part of the mutual aid system the city has through Verdugo Fire.
Burbank fire says the reason for temporarily taking Engine 12 out of service will redistribute the personnel to improve staffing resources across the department. This temporary modification will allow BFD to better serve the community by bringing respite to firefighters and their families, and it will routinely be evaluated to ensure BFD is providing the highest level of service to the community.
While this is an absolute necessity for the well-being of firefighters, it still does not discuss the root cause of the shortage of firefighters in Burbank, which has not happened overnight. With recruits going through the Burbank Fire’s academy in early 2023, there is no guarantee how many will make it through to help with the staffing shortages, as well as if any other firefighters decide to leave the department.
Burke says that firefighters are limited to working 120 hours of five consecutive 24-hour shifts, and Rowley says that is one of the problems with the current conditions.
“The demands on the job have only grown, and we are being forced to do so much more with the same or fewer resources. We are running on more emergency calls but doing so with the same number of firefighters and paramedics that we had 20 to 30 years ago. Our families are suffering, with BFD firefighters working an average of at least 72 hours per week over the past several years. Our members are already away from their families for abnormally long stretches of time, and they are physically worn out. When you add uncompetitive wages and benefits to the equation, you have a situation like the one we are in today with unprecedented numbers of BFD firefighters and paramedics leaving to other departments,” said Rowley, who joined the Burbank Fire Department 18 years ago.
Rowley also feels the issue comes down to financial considerations besides the workload. “Some people will attempt to paint our situation as being indicative of what is happening all over the fire service. This is simply not true. Yes, there are staffing problems in most California fire departments, but ours are being caused by the extraordinary number of BFD first responders who have left the department.”
He also said that Burbank had lost about 20% of its firefighters over the past six years.
“To put things in perspective, if the Los Angeles City Fire Department or the Los Angeles County Fire Department were to lose 20% of their members, that would be about 700 firefighters per department. Fortunately for them, they have both lost less than five total members to other departments over the past six years. Yes, even though our department is about 1/35 the size of LA City or LA County fire, we have lost more total firefighters to other fire departments than both of them combined. This is uniquely a Burbank problem,'” he concluded.
Talamantes says, “I have the utmost confidence in Chief (Eric) Garcia and his team to continue keeping us safe and providing exceptional service to the community,” but the Chief does not control the budget, only the City Council controls the purse strings.
Burbank’s City Council and their negotiator, Betsy McClinton, Management Services Director for the City of Burbank, have met with the union in closed session as recently as September 27. What those negotiations consisted of has not been released to the public.
Rowley continues to worry about the future, saying, “As someone who has given nearly two decades of my professional career to the people of Burbank, the loss of so many firefighters and resulting brown-out of an engine is devastating to me and all of our firefighters. We love this city, and it is an honor to serve our residents. I just hope that these issues can be addressed so that we can rebuild and once again become the fire department that our city deserves.”